The Throw-In: Mental barrier of winning in Mexico is gone

Throw-In: Jackson

Photo Credit: 
MexSport

These weren’t the real Pumas UNAM. So said manager Guillermo Vázquez after his team’s 1-0 loss to FC Dallas on Wednesday night in Mexico City in their CONCACAF Champions League group-stage opener.

We had injuries and suspensions, he said, and we had to give our younger players some experience.

It doesn’t matter. The hex is over, done. Ding, dong, the witch is dead.

For 16 years, no MLS team could figure out how to win in Mexico. It was enemy territory, where the rules did not apply. The stadiums were filled with fans for whom any team wearing another jersey was their enemy. The grass was a little longer, and the fields were a little bigger.

The air was suffocating and the altitude was often unassailable. And most importantly, the level of play by the other guys was almost always better. Always. MLS has been chasing the Mexican Primera División since the US-based league’s inception. It was our closest yardstick, the nearest, closest thing we had to gauge the development and evolution of our league. And nearly every time, we were on the losing end.

From one of the earliest results — Colorado’s fightback in Guanajuato against Club León in the 1998 CONCACAF Champions’ Cup. To the most recent ones — painful comebacks by Cruz Azul and Monterrey over Real Salt Lake and Seattle, respectively, in last year’s CCL group stage.

It’s been one example after another of a spirited performance by a game MLS side, only to wilt in the end and eventually succumb to history. Twenty-four games without a victory — all but three of which were defeats — and a nagging feeling that we just weren’t good enough, no matter how good we thought we were.

On Wednesday night, things changed. FC Dallas went into Mexico City with a nothing-to-lose attitude and a bond of togetherness that has seen them become arguably the most dynamic and entertaining team in all of MLS. And perhaps they had to be the ones to do the impossible.

They have a leader in team captain Daniel Hernandez who has five years of experience in the Mexican league on his résumé. They have a goalkeeper in Kevin Hartman who is perhaps the finest netminder in the history of the league.

They have a slew of Latin players for whom entering the lion’s den in Mexico is nothing foreign, and it certainly isn’t new. They have a coach in Schellas Hyndman who is an expert in mental preparation and motivation, as close to a mystical Obi-Wan Kenobi as you’ll find in MLS.

And perhaps most importantly, they have youth — tons of it — who are too young to care and too naïve to respect the specter that has been the Mexican Hex. (Nine players who took the field for FC Dallas on Wednesday night weren’t even alive when the US national team beat Mexico in 1980 in a World Cup qualifier, snapping a near half-century winless spell against El Tri.)

At the end of the 90 minutes, Marvin Chávez’s goal stood up, Hartman pulled off yet another heroic performance and FCD made history.

This is just the beginning. Yes, it was just a group-stage game and Pumas will use the excuse over and over again that it wasn’t their first-teamers, but their gatitos lost to los Tejanos.

But the beast has been slain. When MLS teams travel to Mexico, they’ll never again have the added pressure that they face the impossible. The hurdle that supposedly couldn’t be cleared has now been cleared. The attitude is now, “If Dallas could do it, why can’t we?”

Regardless of what menacing lineup is put before them, what horrible conditions they play in, how many thousands of fans are jeering at them menacingly, MLS teams can win in Mexico.

Would it have been sweeter if this were a knockout game? Of course. Would it be even bigger to see the US national team break its own 24-game hex in Mexico? Surely. But you’ve got to start somewhere. After all these years of knocking on the door, FC Dallas finally busted it open. That’s a victory for all of MLS.

Jonah Freedman is the managing editor of MLSsoccer.com. “The Throw-In” appears every Thursday.